The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame class will be announced tomorrow (January 24). It’s a huge ballot this year, with 33 names. BBWAA voters are limited to voting for 10; an individual must appear on at least 75% of all ballots to gain induction.
Okay, that’s the boring part. For Indians fans, the most interesting thing on the ballot is the presence of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Omar Vizquel on the ballot. It’s like 1995 all over again. While there are probably plenty of Tribe fans who would love to see all three of them get in, I’m not among them.
The HoF website can give you all of the candidates’ bios and stats. People can argue about the value of WAR over more traditional numbers or how many All-Star games and Gold Gloves can dance on the head of a pin, etc. etc., I’m equally interested in non-quantitative portions of the HoF requirements. The official voting rules state “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
By that criteria, Jim Thome is a shoe-in. According to early voting counts, he will be a first-ballot inductee. He was always the squeaky-clean, aw-shucks kind of guy who reminded people of the days when ball players were heroes on pedestals, not gifted athletes doing a job. Nobody has looked at baseball players as pristine since the publication of Ball Four shone a light on what really goes on off the field. Still, we hope, we dream, we even revere. When a player comes along who seems to embody those qualities of sportsmanship, integrity, and character, we latch on. That’s why we have a statue to Jim Thome at Progressive Field but not Omar Vizquel. Something about Thome’s personality strikes a chord in people–they automatically like the guy. Everything I’ve ever read about him says the same thing: it isn’t a persona, Jim Thome really is that kind and decent.
Thome spent 12 of his 22 Major League seasons with the Indians; Vizquel spent 11 of his 24 seasons in Cleveland. Their longevity here is roughly the same. And judging by the cheers Vizquel got every time the Tigers visited and he was introduced as their first base coach, he’s equally as loved. I like both of them. In some ways, I love Vizquel more because for a long time he was one of the few active players my age. If you’re the same age as active Major League players, then you aren’t old right? (Where have you gone Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer?) Plus Vizquel always looked like he was having a good time. If the game ain’t fun, don’t play it.
That leaves us with Manny. Oh Manny, Manny being Manny. . . He was problematic from the start. I often wondered what would have become of him if he couldn’t play baseball well. He’s not a bright guy. And he seems to function on some situational morality. There are unconfirmed rumors he was on the list of players using PEDs during MLB’s initial sweep in 2003. When he got caught using in 2009, it it struck most fans as a move of stupid desperation by an aging player. When he got caught again, in 2011, he chose to retire rather than face a 100-game suspension. His decision to use PEDS when he did is kind of like a 40-year-old suddenly deciding to smoke. You know it’s deadly–why the hell would you decide to start that now?
Ramirez isn’t the only player from the Steroid Era getting the cold shoulder from BBWAA voters. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are both on the ballot for the 6th time and are holding steady at around 64% of ballots. If Manny Ramirez ever makes it into the Hall of Fame, his plaque would most likely feature a Red Sox cap (another reason for my ambivalence). Jim Thome’s will almost certainly feature an Indians cap (another reason for Tribe fans to rally around him). If Omar Vizquel ever gets in, you could make a very good case for him to be wearing a Tribe cap as well. (Side bar comment: I’m not entirely sold on BBWAA voters sharing their votes before the inductees are announced and the subsequent tracking of those votes. It steals a lot of thunder for me. Where’s the excitement in announcing the vote if we already know who’s getting in?)
When I was a kid, my favorite ballplayer was Andre Thornton. He still is. He didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers, but they were respectable. He was certainly one of the better players on a string of poor Cleveland teams in the late 1970s/early 80s. More importantly, he’s a genuinely good and decent person. He was my hero and, in some ways, still is. I admired him as much for his playing ability as I did for his ability to rise up from an unimaginable personal tragedy and somehow go on. I don’t need every player in the Hall of Fame to be unsullied and perfect. Most aren’t. We all know that nobody is perfect, but Jim Thome may be as close as we’re going to get to unsullied. Welcome to the Hall of Fame.